The NEW Sunset Western Garden Book

Sunset-book.jpg16 years ago, when I took my first horticulture class, The Sunset Western Garden Book was the very first book I bought. Its status in the West is such that I owned three copies by the end of my first year: one old edition which had the best basic gardening tips, one new edition with the most current plant listings and up-to-date science, and a battered, muddy one which I took with me everywhere. I’ve been through three updates over the years, and it’s one of the few books that I pre-order and squeal when the new one comes out, because this is it – if you’re a gardener on the West Coast, you either have this book or, um – you may be overestimating how seriously you’ve been taking this “gardening” thing. You may be wondering how different this new edition could really be? Well, for one, it has photos. Yep, the charming but often-frustrating illustrations have been replaced with vivid, beautiful photographs. And thank god, they put back the plant index, which was missing in the last edition. [Read more...]

Book Review: The Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

Beginners-Illustrated.jpgKatie Elzer-Peters is one of those dynamos of the gardening world who is so busy Getting Things Done that you may not have actually heard of her yet. But she’s been working behind the scenes on so many projects – nursery newsletters, writing articles for sites too numerous to mention, and mentoring authors with Cool Springs Press – that even if you haven’t seen Katie’s name, you’ve almost certainly benefited from her work. And the special juice she brings to every project is her preternatural talent of simplifying the complex. So when I heard that her first published book was to be a guide for beginning gardeners, I could think of no better author for the topic. In The Beginner’s Illustrated Guide to Gardening, Katie brings her talent to the fore with a simple, straightforward, relaxed guide to gardening. This isn’t a book that gardening geeks need. But how many of us have a friend who comes over, looks longingly at our attempts to grow things, and wishes they were the kind of person who could do that? Or a young person in our life who wants to start a few seeds on their patio, but hasn’t ever really gardened before? This is exactly the kind of book I’ve wished I could give my friends and clients – warm, personal, and with a “you can totally do this!” kind of feel. Yet it’s not overly chatty, and the text is delightfully simple. It’s got all the gardening tips that people like me have gathered over the years, yet aren’t usually covered in books. Things like how to understand a fertilizer label, or why to buy plants that are in bud rather than in bloom. Katie demystifies these processes and gives readers the benefit of years of experience. This would make a great textbook for Master Gardener or Intro to Horticulture classes to help students get a firm grounding in the basics. A selection of topics she covers:
  • How to read a seed packet
  • How to read a hardiness zone map
  • How to start seeds
  • How to choose a healthy plant
  • How to water plants
  • How to care for a lawn mower
  • How to fix bald spots in the lawn
  • How to prune a tree
  • How to stake a plant
  • How to grow flowering bulbs
  • How to landscape wet areas
  • How to garden in narrow spaces
  • How to mulch and edge landscape beds
This is just a portion of it, and the text is beautifully illustrated with loads of full-color photos that are professionally laid-out and easy to understand. I hear it’s already selling like hotcakes. Want to win a copy? Cool Springs Press has been kind enough to offer one up to a lucky reader! To win, just leave a comment below and I’ll draw a winner randomly on February 22nd at noon. US only. Edit: Susan with the daughter new to gardening has won! Susan, I’ve emailed you for your address. Thanks to everyone for entering, and if you want to pick up your own copy, it’s available now at Amazon!

Workin’ Like a Pro: Gardening Tools I Adore Right Now

Radius-Garden-PRO-Shovel.jpgYou all know I’m a bit of a tool evangelist. After having countless employees bust up inferior tools during our 40-hour workweeks in the garden, I do get a bit swoony about the tools that last. But of course, merely surviving the garden isn’t good enough for pros. We do so much pruning, digging and planting that our tools need to be ergonomic and fun to use as well. I just wrote my first column for about my top five tools of the moment. If you’re looking for great Christmas gifts for the gardener on your list (yes, people, Christmas is coming), or just needing to replace that old non-fun shovel you’ve been struggling with, go on over and check out my picks! P.S. That shovel? It comes in PURPLE, too!

Five Books: for Beginning Gardeners

fivebooks1.jpgNewbie gardeners are greeted to the gardening book section by thick encyclopedias on Crocus, for example, or how to design in specific styles. But when I was a new gardener, I didn’t know what style I wanted to design in. And I was still working my way through the common, easy-to-grow plants – I think that deep passions for one particular type of plant come when we’re exhausted of seeing the same old things on every trip to the nursery. So what books should a newbie gardener look for? Here are my top suggestions – books that walk you through the processes involved in gardening, while having enough depth so that you won’t grow out of them in time.

From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden by Amy Stewart

from the ground upThis is easily the sweetest book about gardening that I’ve read. Amy walks us through her experiences as a new gardener, and manages to capture the transcendent and the dirty with clarity and warmth. I first read it as a seasoned gardener, and it brought me right back to my first few years of gardening – the mistakes we all make, the new joys we discover, and the sense of wonder inherent in helping plants to thrive. You’ll love it, and you’ll want to buy copies for your new gardening friends. [Read more...]

Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground

Gottahavesomefunbeforegettingdowntoactuallyraking_thumb.jpgAll gardeners evolve. There is something about being outside and working hard in nature that inspires learning and growth. The issue of fall leaves is one I’ve been struggling with lately. Last year I wrote about why you shouldn’t let your fall leaves stay, and all of those reasons are still true, but… This year as I’ve learned more about the importance of insects in our ecosystem (they feed the birds, pollinate, eat other “bad” bugs, and generally play an important part in the natural cycles that keep our food growing and our world pleasant), I’ve also learned that many insects overwinter in our fallen leaves. If you use plants to attract birds, or put out a feeder, but you rake your leaves up, you are kind of sabotaging your efforts to care for wildlife, because the birdies love to eat bugs! In addition, leaves add nutrients and softness to the soil, and can be good protection from the frost in cold climates. The problem? Leaves can also rot perennials, shade out sections of lawn or groundcovers, and can overwinter BAD bugs too! Not to mention, the wilder aesthetic of leaving the leaves where they fall isn’t right for every garden. So what’s the conscientious gardener to do? I do think it’s possible to care for wildlife and the environment while still having a clean-looking garden and taking care of our ornamental plants. Here’s some of the middle ground I’m finding in the to-rake-or-not-to-rake debate: [Read more...]

Low-Maintenance Landscaping: How to Tim Ferriss Your Garden Routine

TimFerriss.jpgDo you have more garden than time? Even people who love, LOVE to garden sometimes find their landscape a source of guilt rather than joy. So many times when I’m visiting a garden, I’m making enthusiastic exclamations over the abundance and beauty of it all, the owner of the garden is saying things like, “well, don’t look over there”, and “this area’s just a mess”, and “I haven’t gotten around to weeding lately”. Even if the overall effect is lovely, when it’s our garden, we can get hung up on our to-do list instead of just appreciating how far we’ve come. If that’s you, there are a ton of things you can do to reduce the amount of work required of you, so that you’re able to focus on doing the things that bring you joy in the garden. Four-Hour-Work-Week If you’ve heard of Tim Ferriss, he’s the author of The Four-Hour Workweek, and he recommends automating, outsourcing and just plain stopping doing work that doesn’t thrill you. The title of his book is misleading, because I think he works longer hours than most people, but he spends his time doing what he loves, not on the repetitive, grindingly boring tasks that make up so many people’s days. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your garden be filled with just the tasks you love? To get to choose how much time to spend and what tasks to spend it on rather than being chained to a maintenance routine you find a chore? To that end, I’ve adapted Ferriss’s advice for business success to the garden. [Read more...]

Coastal Gardening: How to Garden on the Seacoast


Coastal gardening presents some big challenges. There is constant strong wind,  sandy soil that doesn’t hold water well and is lean on nutrients, and the salt! Oh, the salt.

Of course, it has its benefits too. Nowhere else do you get such a sense of motion in the landscape, between the beauty of the waves and movement of the foliage in the wind.

And if you can incorporate the ocean view into your garden design, working with your layout and plantings to make the view feel like it’s part of your garden rather than a far-off bit of scenery – then your landscaped areas can take on a sense of openness and grandeur that other gardens can’t touch. [Read more...]

Gardening Basics: How to Apply Mulch

We’ve talked about why a thick layer of mulch, composty soil, and good watering habits are important if you want to garden more organically; it’s all about giving your plants a foundation of good health so that pest problems will be few and far between. Today we’ll talk specifically about mulch: what it is, what type to use, how to apply it, and why mulching is the single most important thing you can do to improve the health of your plants and reduce maintenance time:
Mini fir bark chips used in the garden
Mini fir bark chips used as mulch
Mulching is when you add a layer of wood chips, chipped bark, shredded leaves, or other material to the top of your soil without mixing it in, so that it will hold down weeds, hold moisture in the soil, and contribute positively to your soil over time.

Why mulching is so over-the-top awesome for your garden:

  • A 3” thick layer of mulch will reduce the weeds that come up by 75% or more overnight – it is the single best organic weed control out there. Clients who don’t have mulch are shocked at the difference after we put down a good layer of wood mulch – it smothers the weed seeds that try to sprout from the soil below.
  • It helps your soil hold onto moisture so that you needn’t water so often.
  • It also keeps your soil from getting so compacted when you step on it to maintain your garden, and keeps hard rains and hot sun from forming a crust on your soil’s surface.
  • It keeps plants’ roots cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • It helps support the beneficial micro-organisms and worm populations that keep your soil aerated and help change the existing nutrients in your soil into a form your plants can use.
  • It can help keep some soil-borne bacterial diseases from harming delicate, over-bred plants like many roses.
  • In some cases, mulch can help with erosion control.
For all these reasons, if you want a low-maintenance garden with happy, healthy plants, mulching is the number-one thing you can do to have an immediate, dramatic impact on the time you spend weeding, and the overall happiness of your plants. [Read more...]

Soil, Water, and Mulch: The Three Key Steps to a Healthy Organic Garden

As a professional landscaper, I get to see and diagnose a lot of garden issues. I find many people at wits’ end, spraying for pest problems and dealing with unhappy plants. Most of the time, the pest problem or grumpy plant shouldn’t be looked at as the problem itself – more accurately, they are symptoms of a bigger issue in the garden. [Read more...]